Earlier this morning, we concluded the Northern Ireland negotiation, which I hope will allow a final and durable settlement. I met the Russian Foreign Minister at 8.30 this morning and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that people should go to university on the basis of their merit. On Monday, his Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education said that she would set specific targets for children from poorer backgrounds. Can he now clear up this confusion once and for all and assure pupils in my constituency that their university applications will be based on merit and transparency, and not crude social engineering?
Of course, it should be based on merit and the ability of students, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also agree that we should do everything that we possibly can, subject to what I have just said, to widen access to our universities, because it is also important that we allow children from working class and poorer backgrounds the chance of a first class, quality university education.
St. Helier hospital in south-west London has leapt from a zero to a two-star rating and has just taken delivery of ultra-sound equipment for cancer care. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Merton council and local campaigner Stephen Alambritis that such improvements make a good case for keeping the hospital open? Does not the case of St. Helier show that, through reform, we can improve the health service where those reforms are backed up by investment and not undermined by the 20 per cent. cut on expenditure proposed by the Conservative party?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we recognise that the extra investment going into our national health service is delivering real results for the people of this country, including, incidentally, 40,000 extra nurses since the last general election. There could be nothing more disastrous than a 20 per cent. cut across the board—the policy of the Conservative party.
The Prime Minister confirms that Saddam Hussein is in breach of UN resolution 1441, so will he now confirm that, unless Hans Blix reports to the Security Council on Friday that Saddam Hussein has co-operated fully, including the full disclosure of his chemical and biological weapons, there will be a vote on the second resolution early next week?
The exact timing of any vote is a matter that is still under discussion, but yes of course it is the case that if Saddam Hussein fails fully to comply, there should be a vote in the United Nations. I hope very much that the United Nations supports the position that it set out in resolution 1441 last November, which called upon him to have full, unconditional and immediate compliance. It is plain at the present time that he is not in such compliance.
The fact that Saddam Hussein remains in material breach means that military action is more likely. Will the Prime Minister therefore spell out exactly what is happening in the no-fly zone? Is it not now the case that British and American planes are making pre-emptive strikes on targets that would threaten our ground forces rather than just our aircraft? Surely that represents a substantial change in existing policy. Would not the Prime Minister help his own case if he more frankly spelled out to the British people what is exactly and really going on?
No. The position on the no-fly zones remains exactly the same as that set out by the Defence Secretary earlier. Let me make a point in addition to those that I made a moment ago. Conflict could be avoided even now in one of two sets of circumstances. The first is that Saddam complies fully and unconditionally. Let us spell out what that means: accounting for the thousands of litres of anthrax, the hundreds of tonnes of precursor chemicals, the thousands of special munitions for chemical and biological warfare and the 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent, and giving proper access to Iraqi scientists and experts for interview. Thirty-four requests for such interviews have been refused. Of those granted, nine have been on Iraqi terms, not those that the inspectors set out. Saddam must therefore comply fully and absolutely.
The second alternative is that he leaves. Those are the only two ways of avoiding conflict, but either route could prevent it. To those who claim that we are hell bent on conflict, I say that it can be avoided if Saddam does what the United Nations and the international community demand.
While I recognise that my right hon. Friend's priorities are understandably elsewhere, may I encourage him to view enthusiastically the prospect of Government support for a British bid to host the 2012 Olympics? It would be based on, but not exclusive to, London. Apart from the obvious benefits to British sport, will he recognise the considerable benefits to British business, jobs and the acceleration of east London's regeneration?
We entirely recognise the potential benefits of the Olympics bid. The Government will make their decision shortly. It is important to acknowledge, as my hon. Friend said, that people in London are fully behind the bid.
Will the Prime Minister clarify his comments of last week? Can we have a guarantee that before any military action involving British troops is taken, there will be an opportunity for a debate and a definitive vote in the House?
The Foreign Secretary spelled that out clearly in the debate. He said that, subject to the caveat that we have always expressed about the security of troops, the decision should be put to the House. I accept that, but with the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it is a matter not of process or procedure, although that is important, but of whether he, as well as us, is prepared to uphold resolution 1441, which everyone said that we should uphold.
In the past few days, I have spoken to many world leaders and discussed the issue with them. Not a single leader or official of any Government disputes the fact that Saddam is not currently complying. Everyone accepts that he is not, that he is not co-operating properly and that he is a threat. Resolution 1441 stated that he had a final opportunity to disarm voluntarily and that he had to co-operate fully, unconditionally and immediately. Everybody accepts that he is not doing that. Surely the right hon. Gentleman should join me in urging people to vote for the second resolution.
It was a detailed and good set of discussions over two days. It is possible that we have reached the basis for the final breakthrough to resolve all the outstanding issues of the Belfast or Good Friday agreement. It has to be done on the basis of a complete cessation of all paramilitary activity and implementation of all remaining parts of the agreement by the Governments and other parties. I think that there is real hope for that breakthrough, but the discussions over the next few weeks will tell us whether that hope is well founded. I hope that it is, because I truly believe that the one thing that people in Northern Ireland know—let me spell it out again—is that there is no way in which the agreement is going to be renegotiated: it is either implemented or we do not have the peaceful future in Northern Ireland that we all want to see.
Does the Prime Minister recognise the figures of 12 per cent. and 50 per cent.? Twelve per cent. is the average council tax increase and 50 per cent. is the proportion of trusts that have either fiddled or misreported their waiting list figures. Which figure gives the Prime Minister the greater cause for concern?
First, in relation to council tax, the hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of the funding that the Government have put into councils not a single council anywhere is getting anything less than an above-inflation increase. I believe that that is the first time that that has happened.
Secondly, of course we deplore any inaccurate accounting that the Audit Commission found. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Audit Commission also found that in the case of the vast majority of trusts that were not the subject of its report the figures are plainly accurate and right. Furthermore, we have a situation whereby there is not a single waiting list national indicator, in-patient or out-patient, that is not better than it was in 1997.
My right hon. Friend may be aware of BT management's proposals to outsource some 700 call centre jobs to India. May I ask him to use his good offices to discourage BT and any other like-minded employer from exploiting the low-wage economies of the world, particularly at the expense of British jobs? In the name of being British and of the morality of being British, that sharp practice has to be outlawed. Will he consider introducing legislation that would do so?
I am afraid that I cannot say to my hon. Friend that it would be right to introduce legislation to outlaw it. Obviously we hope that as many jobs as possible are kept here in this country. I point out to my hon. Friend, however, that it is partly as a result of the way in which the economy has been managed and the labour market is run that we have a better position on unemployment and employment in this country than does virtually any other major country.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The principle is the same as that which led, for example, to there not being a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. [Interruption.] I am sorry to bring back happy memories among Conservative Members, but that is correct. We have laid out very clearly the reason why we will have a referendum on the single currency. It is a big decision for the whole country and it is right that there should be a referendum. It is not the case that there was a referendum either on the Single European Act 1986 or on the Maastricht treaty.
The Prime Minister may be aware of early-day motion 770, which was signed by many Scottish Labour Members, advocating the advantages to Scottish and to UK business of an early entry into the euro zone. Given Sir Edward George's comments yesterday about it being more advantageous than it was a year ago to consider entry to the euro, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that there will be no fudging of the Chancellor's five economic tests and make a pledge to call an early referendum to take Britain into the heart of Europe and of the European monetary system?
Tempting though it is to speculate, I am afraid that I must simply repeat to my hon. Friend that the tests have to be completed by June and that those tests will of course be done on the basis of the assessment that we have already set out.
The Prime Minister gave the same excuses 15 months ago when the National Audit Office produced the same report as the Audit Commission has today, and nothing has changed. His comments show that the culture of fiddling the figures goes right the way to the top. Today, the Audit Commission said that more than 90 per cent. of trusts gave inaccurate information on waiting lists. It said that some hospitals are
"offering appointments to patients at short notice and then, when they are unable to attend . . . resetting the 'clock' measuring their waiting times to zero."
Will the Prime Minister explain why, after he has been in charge of the health service for some six years, the Audit Commission chairman now says that it is under-managed and over-bureaucratised?
First, it should be pointed out that we actually asked for this report from the Audit Commission because of the earlier report from the National Audit Office. Secondly, it was a report on 41 out of 300 trusts. Thirdly, it is extremely important that we do have targets for the health service. Of course the right hon. Gentleman is going to say that the whole of the health service is in chaos and crisis, and not offering proper treatment. That is because it is the desire of the Conservative party to run down the national health service, because it wants to cut its funding. The truth is that the record investment in the health service is delivering real results for people. It is delivering reductions in waiting times and in waiting lists; it is delivering more doctors and nurses, and more hospitals. Actually, the vast majority of people in the national health service get a decent level of health care from it. The right hon. Gentleman's alternative, which is to push people out into the private sector, may be fine for a few at the top, but it would be disastrous for the vast majority of users of our national health service.
Instead of the Prime Minister trying to say what others might do, why does he not take responsibility for what he has failed to do? He should admit that he is raising taxes on hard-working people to fund a system that puts Government targets before patients' health, and which now has more bureaucrats than beds. Patients know that, whatever the Government say, they cannot believe a word that the Government produce. Is it not time that the Prime Minister apologised to the thousands of patients whose operations have been cancelled because of his political meddling?
Let us indeed not take what I say, then, but consider, for example, what the secretary of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons said just a day or two ago about cardiac services. He said that people are now working
"in an environment where waiting lists are plummeting; where the number of trainees in cardiac surgery has doubled; where new cardiac centres are being built and existing centres modernised and expanded; and where the results for heart surgery continue to improve and are better than in most of the developed world".
That is what is actually happening in our health service today. Of course it is the case that, as I said, the right hon. Gentleman needs to run down the health service. He has got to say that the extra money going into the health service is not necessary, but he should talk to people in the health service. They know that it needs the extra funding that is going into it; that is what is producing the extra nurses, and the results on cardiac surgery. When we came to office, 60 per cent. of cancer patients were seen within two weeks, but that figure is now well over 95 per cent. That is where the money is going—on better national health service care.
What the right hon. Gentleman has said yet again, in his opposition to what we are doing in April, is that the extra money that we would put into our national health service, he would take out. He would then add to that through 20 per cent. cuts across the board. [Interruption.] He and his hon. Friends can say what they like, but in the end that is the choice before the country, and I believe that this country will choose the national health service.
I hope that, after Question Time, my right hon. Friend will accept two CDs made by constituents of mine. They want to pass on to him a message about the proposed large international airport in Rugby, and the message is clear: no airport here. Indeed, that is the message not just from Rugby, but from across the midlands. I hope that my right hon. Friend will enjoy listening to the CDs in his leisure time.
I am sure that the CDs will make a fascinating listen. I hear exactly what my hon. Friend says. He will know that the consultation period is running for consultation on airports, and we have got to take account of all the representations made. He has made his point very strongly, and we will of course listen to it.
As the Secretary of State for Health has made very clear, provided that hospitals meet the criteria, we want as many foundation hospitals as possible. It is right that we have freedom for those hospitals so that they can provide a good service for national health service patients. However, it is not just reform and freedom that they need—[Interruption.]
Order. There should not be so much shouting.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that fear of detection is one of the most powerful tools in the fight against crime? Will he join me in congratulating Gwent police on having one of the highest detection rates of all the police forces in England and Wales, contributing to a 17 per cent. reduction in crime? Will my right hon. Friend consider the current funding formula to ensure that Gwent police are able to have a visible police presence—not only in deprived urban communities but in rural areas such as Usk?
I am sure that Gwent will apply to—and, I hope, receive help through—the rural policing fund. My hon. Friend is right to point out that crime in his area is falling. There are also record numbers of police officers in this country today; we have more police officers than we have ever had before. That is essential in the fight against crime and it is one reason why so many police forces round the country are being successful in reducing crime.
Is the Prime Minister aware that the pensioners of Old Bexley and Sidcup face not only a decrease in their incomes but a Labour council and Labour Government imposed council tax increase of 17 per cent.? What message does the Prime Minister have for the excellent headmistress of Marlborough school—a special school in Sidcup working with children with severe and profound mental and physical handicaps—who now faces a £65,000 shortfall in her budget and a real risk of losing excellent, experienced teachers because of the Government settlement? Will he consider such problems? This is not just about facts and figures; there are real problems for children who have the greatest need in our society.
I will of course look into the situation that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. However, what he is saying, in effect, is that his school and his council need more money. It is for that very reason that we have put in such a large increase to the local authority budget; and it is for that reason that we are increasing the amount of investment in schools by a record amount. I say to the hon. Gentleman that, if the school has difficulties, it would, I think, react very adversely to a policy of having 20 per cent. cuts across the board.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that today sees the launch of the first annual report of the Children's Commissioner for Wales? The existence of the post has already made a great deal of difference to children in Wales. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce a children's commissioner in England?
We are studying carefully the Welsh example and the results of having a children's commissioner there. We have always set out why we believe that the situation is different in England. We have also had the Laming report in the intervening stages and we are considering our response carefully.
I want to come back to the issue of foundation hospitals. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he agrees with the Secretary of State for Health, who said in a speech last month that he was in favour of freeing such hospitals from the constraints of central Government and capital rationing—in other words, from the controls of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? We have the benefit of having both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Health here today, so will the Prime Minister confirm which of them he is backing in this long-running Government dispute?
As I said a moment or two ago, it is important that we get as many foundation hospitals as possible, based on the criteria that we have set out. However, just as I would say to the Conservatives that they are failing the country by failing to support extra investment, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he and the Liberal Democrats are failing the country by failing to support the necessary reform. On this side of the House, our position is that we need investment and money in our health service.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the importance of research and development in Britain, particularly in developing industries such as aquaculture. Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing disappointment at the decision of the Sea Fish Industry Authority to close down the Ardtoe research facility in my constituency with the loss of 17 jobs? Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and a delegation of research scientists to try to keep this vital facility open?
I am aware of the position of the Sea Fish Industry Authority and I know that Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish Executive are prepared to meet my hon. Friend. If that meeting is unsatisfactory to him, I will be happy to meet him myself. We recognise the important role of aquaculture and the importance of research in the United Kingdom.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the economic record of the Government. Let me tell him what the IMF report also said. It said that
"UK economic performance has remained enviable".
It also said that
"the economy appears to have weathered the global slowdown relatively well" and that
"the UK public finances are among the strongest in the G7".
It is thanks to the Chancellor that we have the lowest inflation, lowest unemployment and lowest interest rates for years and years. We all remember the Tory days of 3 million unemployed, 10 per cent. interest rates and disaster for the British economy.
Would at least nine affirmative votes in the Security Council for the so-called second resolution tabled by the US, UK and Spain give clear—I emphasise the word "clear"—legal authority for war against Iraq? What difference would the use of what my right hon. Friend describes as the unreasonable veto make?
First, let me assure my hon. Friend that we will always act in accordance with international law. Secondly, in relation to the resolution, we are confident of securing the votes for that resolution and we will carry on working to that end. We are doing that because we believe that it is important that the UN, having declared a position on Iraq, follows through and maintains that position. I know that my hon. Friend opposes our position on the matter, and I do not disrespect that—she is perfectly entitled to do so. However, I know that we both agree that the authority of the UN is important. If that authority is to be upheld, it is important that what we said last November is implemented. If it is not, the effect on the UN—apart from the effect on the international situation—would be disastrous.
I simply point out to the hon. Lady that the UN resolutions are not just in respect of Israel, but of the Arab world and the Palestinians, too. In relation to the Palestinian territories, what is happening there is appalling, but the only way out of it that will maintain all the UN resolutions—not just those on Israel, but those on the Palestinians and the Arab world—is to get a peace process going again in the middle east. All I can say to her is that this country will play its full part in that, but in the end the only way to avoid the terrible tragedy that is happening to the Palestinians—and, indeed, to innocent Israeli civilians who are also dying—is to ensure that we get a proper peace process back on track. We will certainly do all that we can to facilitate that.
Three weeks ago in the United States the Under Secretary of Defense told the US Foreign Relations Committee how Iraq would be administered in a post-conflict situation. He said that an office of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance had been set up under General Garner. He invited contributions from UN organisations, aid agencies and coalition partners, and said that coalition officials would account to the US President through Donald Rumsfeld and General Franks. Is not it unacceptable that our aid agencies and UN organisations should respond to the US President? Is our policy that—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should know how to ask a brief question. Will the Prime Minister try to answer?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. All sorts of people may have made statements about the matter, but I shall tell my hon. Friend exactly what is happening. At present, we are in intensive discussions, with the US and others. Indeed, part of my discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister this morning was about how we make sure, if there is a conflict, that we take the greatest care of the subsequent humanitarian situation in Iraq. I have no doubt that there will have to be a substantial UN involvement. That is what we are arguing for and what we want to see. I believe that that will be the outcome. Therefore, rather than speculate about what might happen, I assure my hon. Friend that we will declare those plans to people as soon as we have them properly worked out.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question, as people do ask it. I think that the threat of leaving Saddam Hussein armed with weapons of mass destruction is twofold. First, it is that he begins another conflict in his region, into which Britain as a country would inevitably be sucked, with all that that means. Alternatively—and I think that this is a powerful and developing threat that the world must face—the risk is that states such as Iraq, which are proliferating these chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, will combine in a way that is devastating for the world with terrorists who are desperate to get their hands on those weapons to wreak maximum destruction.
The events of